Kenji Fujimoto was nervous about returning to Pyongyang, fearing he could be punished because of his actions 11 years ago. Adding to his unease in the North Korean capital was the purpose of his visit: meeting members of the family that has ruled the country since its establishment more than half a century ago.
So in front of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Fujimoto, 65, announced humbly that “traitor Fujimoto has returned” and apologized for abruptly fleeing the country in 2001.
Kim, the first secretary of the ruling Workers' Party, said: “Mr. Fujimoto, let’s forget about it.”
With tears in his eyes, Fujimoto ran to hug the young leader.
Fujimoto (not his real name), the former chef of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, recounted his return to the reclusive country in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun. He talked mainly about a banquet on July 22, but also offered his views about the new regime.
He came back to Japan in early August.
According to his publications, Fujimoto started working at a restaurant in Pyongyang in 1982. Kim Jong Il loved his sushi and asked him to become his personal chef.
Fujimoto spent much time with the Kim family, including Ko Yong Hui, the wife of Kim Jong Il, and their sons Kim Jong Chol and Kim Jong Un.
According to Fujimoto’s books, Kim Jong Il said: “Jong Chol is not good. Jong Un is similar to me.”
After spending 13 years in North Korea, Fujimoto in 2001 left the country, telling that he was going to Japan to find some fresh food.
Back in Japan, Fujimoto became a valuable source of information about North Korea. He wrote those books about his experiences in North Korea and offered details to the media about the mysterious lives of “Dear Leader” and his family.
Fujimoto also said that he thought his disclosure of such information would make him an enemy in the eyes of the North Korean leadership.
“It would not be surprising if I am purged if I revisit North Korea,” he said he thought at the time.
Instead, Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, on July 22 openly welcomed Fujimoto and invited him to the Eighth Banquet Hall in Pyongyang, a place reserved for high-ranking officials of the ruling Workers' Party and the government.
The luncheon was attended by 16 people, including: Kim Jong Un; his wife; his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong; Kim Ok, believed to be Kim Jong Il’s de facto wife; and Jang Song Thaek, believed to be Kim Jong Un’s main guardian. But his older brother, Jong Chol, was not there.
After a toast with Bordeaux wine, the diners drank a distilled North Korean spirit and ate the tuna that Fujimoto bought at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, he said.
Forty minutes into the luncheon, a Korean named Sakura, who had lived in Japan, interpreted Fujimoto’s prepared speech in Hangul.
“To return my thanks, I will serve as a bridge between the two countries,” Fujimoto said in the speech.
His speech also referred to the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Fujimoto said he described the issue as “a major obstacle” for improved relations between Japan and North Korea.
He said he asked a favor of Kim Jong Un. “Please return Megumi Yokota and other (abductees) to Japan. I believe it would pave the way for your country to normalize relations with Japan and to obtain a large amount of money from Japan,” Fujimoto said.
Kim Jong Un nodded occasionally as he listened to Fujimoto’s speech.
The two later recalled pleasant memories, including rides on horses and a water bike. Kim was a young boy when Fujimoto started cooking for Kim Jong Il.
According to Fujimoto, when he asked for pictures from the banquet, the North Korean leader said, “Go ahead.”
Kim’s personal photographer presented eight pictures to Fujimoto.
“I did not expect (Kim) to accept my request because he knows what I do in Japan,” he said.
He said he felt this gesture showed a sense of openness on the part of the new regime.
Fujimoto’s reunion with the Kim family came about after a Korean resident in Japan approached him near his house in June.
“Your family and another person want to meet you,” Fujimoto quoted the messenger as saying.
He said he could not believe what was said and declined the offer.
One month later, a message from Kim Jong Un was delivered to Fujimoto: “Let us fulfill our promise of 2001.”
Fujimoto had promised the younger Kim when he left for Japan in 2001 that he would “certainly return.”
Since “it was a promise only (Kim Jong Un and I) alone knew,” he decided to return to North Korea.
The day after the luncheon, Fujimoto was reunited with his own family.
Fujimoto’s wife is Om Jong Nyo, a 45-year-old former folk singer. Their daughter, Jong Mi, now 20, has studied Japanese and wants to enroll in a university specializing in foreign languages. Fujimoto said he was impressed with his grown-up daughter.
He said he gave his family dresses and souvenirs from Japan, and he ate lunch at their home.
The topic of food was also brought up at the luncheon.
Fujimoto and one of Kim Jong Il’s close aides frequented a popular ramen shop when they visited the Tsukiji fish market.
Kim Jong Un was interested in the ramen, asking, “Is it really so good?”
After returning from Pyongyang, Fujimoto obtained a ramen recipe from the restaurant owner in Tsukiji.
“I want leader Jong Un to taste the same ramen,” said Fujimoto, adding that he plans to visit Pyongyang before long. “If I find the right ingredients, I want to make sushi, too.”
(This article was written by Izumi Sakurai and Atsushi Hiroshima.)
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